Rhee’s political migrationIn the midst of the confusion surrounding the political community, legislator and former presidential candidate Rhee In-je has bolted from the People First Party to join the Democratic Party. This will be the ninth party for Rhee, making him the legislator to have switched parties the most since the birth of the National Assembly in 1948. Former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung have also been members of nine different parties during their political careers, but most of these changes had been due to party mergers or changing of party names.
“Migratory” politicians ― or politicians who change parties without any legitimate reason ― have long been around the Korean political scene. The phenomenon reaches its peak when the presidential elections approach. This year was no exception, with an en masse migration from the Uri Party, the creation of the New Party for Centrist Reform and Alliance and the defection from the Grand National Party by one prospective presidential hopeful, Sohn Hak-kyu, in a squabble over primary election rules. Such migratory moves have become so commonplace now that voters have given up even becoming upset. Yet even by the jaded standards of Korean politics, Rhee’s record is an eye-opener.
The break in Rhee’s political career came with Kim Young-sam’s New Korea Party. As a trusted member of this party, Rhee moved from being the Minister of Labor to governor of Gyeonggi Province and ultimately a presidential primary candidate. However, he left the party when he lost the primary race to Lee Hoi-chang in 1997. He ran as an independent presidential candidate, only to meet a crushing defeat with a mere 5 million votes. In the end, Rhee only helped the opposition by dividing the votes for his own side. In 2002, Rhee left the Millennium Democratic Party when he found himself running second to Roh Moo-hyun in the primary race. Rhee has become something of a precedent-to-avoid among Korean politicians (“buck, bolt and lose”) Because of him, the law was even changed to dissuade candidates from leaving their parties.
Rhee said his reason for joining the Democratic Party was “a historical duty to unite in the name of reform.” Not many who know his history believe his words.
The Democratic Party, desperate for a relief pitcher with the presidential election just around the corner, has quietly accepted Rhee back despite his defection in the past. Is this the kind of unity they plan to bring to the nation?